Monday, February 14, 2011

Book Club: Boston - A Topographical History

This will be the first in a series of book recommendations. The first edition, written by Walter Muir Whitehill, was published in 1959. It is now in its third edition, with added chapters by Lawrence W. Kennedy that bring us past the New Boston period and right up to the year 2000.

This is the book you need to read if you want to understand the building of the city of Boston. And by that I mean both the architecture and the literal building of the land now considered Boston proper. The story - of hills removed and coves and bays filled - is both told and illustrated, with maps, prints and early photographs adding greatly to the effort.

If it was up to me, Boston would be laced with painted lines of different colors, showing the old shorelines and the sites of now-leveled hills. There was a sort of diorama of the growth of Boston thorough the years that sat on the observation level of the John Hancock building. When the owners of the building cynically took advantage of the 9/11 attack to close the observation room to take back the floor space to profit from, the diorama lost its home. Without such graphical displays, it is near-impossible for the average person to envision the evolution of the city.

You can get this book at the library, but if you have sufficient interest to read it, I recommend buying it. It's so chock full of information, that you'll want to keep it at hand, and return to it over and over again. Through the good graces of, you can have a used copy for the price of shipping - or at least the shipping charge Amazon allows its sellers. At that price, its worth it for the photos alone. Permberton square, Tontine crescent, Boston neck, with just a handful of buildings showing, the Back Bay, filled and virtually empty - each will change how you see the city.


  1. Great idea on the books! For future posts, can you include a link to the book on

  2. Is that the book that Whitehill's "cut down the hills to fill in the coves" quote came from? I should check it out because it sounds like it has a lot of great Boston history. I agree that it's really hard for most people to imagine what Boston looked like before the transformation and it's a shame they shut down the observation deck.